How to Write Essays About a Challenging Problem & How You Solved it

How to Write Essays About a Challenging Problem & How You Solved it

"Write about a challenge you've overcome" is a common essay topic students encounter in high school and on college applications. These essays offer students an opportunity to showcase their personality, experiences and values, as well as their writing skills. This type of personal narrative may seem daunting, but organizing your thoughts can make the task manageable and even fun. Don't wait until the last minute to write your essay. If you're rushed and stressed, you'll write less effectively.

1 List Problems Encountered

Brainstorm challenges you have faced and write them down. Don't worry if you've never accomplished anything dramatic; everyday challenges, such as overcoming a fear, helping a friend or working toward a goal, can make great essays. What have you struggled with? What moments have made you proud? What experiences have changed you? If you have trouble thinking of examples, ask a friend or family member, or flip through old journals and photo albums.

2 Identify Obstacles Overcome

Choose a challenge you've overcome, and make sure your topic is something you feel proud of and are interested in. Writing your essay with passion and sincerity will be difficult if you don't genuinely believe the experience was meaningful and transformative. In addition, make sure your story shows you acting in a positive way, especially if your essay is part of a college application.

3 Tell Your Story

Write your first draft. Don't worry about sentence structure, grammar or spelling, just tell your story. If you're stuck at the beginning, don't worry about crafting a perfect introduction -- simply jump in and start writing. Many students who struggle with introductions and conclusions find writing the body of the essay first, and then tackling the beginning and ending, makes the process more manageable. If necessary, think about how you would tell the story if you were speaking to a friend or acquaintance. After finishing your draft, take a break before editing.

4 Edit Your First Draft

Analyze your draft for clarity and logic. Does your story make sense? Focus on the narrative elements. If you've left out key parts, add necessary information. Add transitions, if necessary, to help your story flow smoothly. Next, edit for structure and style. Examine your first paragraph, especially your first sentence. Your first sentence should introduce readers to your topic in a vivid and immediate way. If possible, include vivid sensory details. Examine your essay's ending. You don't need a conclusion paragraph in a personal narrative, but your last sentence or two should give the reader a sense of closure. Make sure the lesson you learned or experience you gained is clear. Check spelling and grammar carefully.

5 Write Your Final Draft

Read the entire essay and delete any repetitive or irrelevant descriptions. Make sure sentences flow smoothly into each other without excessive repetition or wordiness. Check that your essay is separated into several paragraphs and that each paragraph furthers your story. Ensure that your essay is within the recommended length. Read the entire essay slowly and carefully, searching once again for spelling and grammatical errors. Read the essay aloud, if possible. Give your essay to a friend or teacher to read for clarity, spelling, grammar and sentence structure.

  • Don't embellish your story. Exaggerating is academically dishonest, and inconsistent details may alert a reader to your deception.
  • Don't wait until the last minute to write your essay. If you're rushed and stressed, you'll write less effectively.

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.